All throughout my childhood Thanksgiving dinners, I was asked to be grateful. Grateful for our food, our health, our families, whatever. And I don’t know if other people felt the same way as I did, but it always felt forced. It’s not that I wasn’t thankful for all that I had, it’s just that I wasn’t welling over with the feeling of gratitude. It was a thought of gratitude, not a feeling, I think. And while I don’t think I was unfeeling or a bad kid, I also don’t believe that this lack of direct gratitude was an accident.
I believe that gratitude isn’t innate. It doesn’t show up of its own volition. It has to be generated somehow. Realizing this got me thinking about where gratitude does come from, as it seems to me that a perennial feeling of gratitude is something worth cultivating, either to create a feeling of abundance, or just to help change our attitude to one of wonder and satisfaction. It’s at least worth exploring.
After some thought, I’ve come to realize that gratitude can only truly occur when one knows about lacking. In particular, two types of lacking come to mind:
The first way to know about lacking is to have experienced a lack in the past. People who have experienced hunger in the past appreciate food when it is around. People who have experienced loneliness in the past appreciate being surrounded by friends and loved ones. I speak from some experience here, and I’m sure that you have probably experienced at least one of these at one point in your life so far, or something similar. When I was a kid, I never lacked for either, so gratitude didn’t spring easily.
The other way to know about lacking is, oddly, being aware of a lack that could happen. By this, I mean an awareness of a possible future lack. A sense that food could be scarce someday. That you could lose your job. That the people you love could leave. All of these things, when you are made aware of them, can engender a sense of gratitude for what you have right now.
(To be fair, this idea is not new. Seneca, the Roman philosopher from Nero’s day, recommended such a perspective for dealing with the unexpectedness of life. Writing in his essay De Consolatione ad Marciam (On Consolation to Marcia): “You say: ‘I did not think it would happen.’ Do you think there is anything that will not happen, when you know that it is possible to happen, when you see that it has already happened to many?”)
If you think about it, since anything we value can theoretically be taken away, this allows us a happy irony: it’s possible for every one of us to be able to experience gratitude on a wide and long-term scale. If we are fully aware of this, it allows us to truly value what we have now. A persistent awareness of the future, with all that future could bring (or take away) has the ability to instill in us a sense of long-term, universal gratitude.
I invite you to think back to times when you have perhaps wanted for things. Perhaps at one point you didn’t have anyone to celebrate a holiday with. Perhaps at one point you weren’t able to make ends meet. Only you know where your mind jumped to just now. But now I invite you to look around and find all those things that you do have going for you. I’m sure that with just a bit of looking, you will find quite a lot: people who love you, food to eat, a future wide open with possibility, a pretty view out the window, the ability to breathe deeply and slowly, the feeling you get when you listen to your favorite song, and so forth. There really is no end to the things with which we can all be grateful of if we’re willing to see them.
My family had this poem attributed to Robert Burns up on our wall. I think it’s fitting to quote it here (though it’s a bit clearer and a lot more fun if you speak it aloud in a thick Scottish brogue):
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.
And so, as I plan to spend a Thanksgiving with people I care about, mindful of those years when for various reasons that didn’t happen, I can say that I am truly and sincerely grateful. Both Seneca and Robert Burns would be proud.
But enough about me. How do you feel gratitude?